This is one of the most important questions in the Christian faith. There are many people who seem to be confused on this issue and worry if they are "good" enough to go to heaven. Some people try to say that faith is not enough, and make people feel guilty for not doing "enough" good deeds. Are we saved only through faith? Or must we have faith and do good works?. This is discussed many times in the Bible, so let's see what God has written about this subject.
The Thief on the Cross
Although this is only mentioned in one gospel, it seems to be the best example of whether we are saved by works or by faith. This story is in Luke 23:40-43. When Jesus is hanging on the cross dying, there are two criminals also on crosses next to him. One taunts him and says "Aren't you the messiah? Save yourself and save us!". But the other one says "Don't you fear God? Aren't you getting the same punishment as this man? We got what was coming to us, but he didn't do anything wrong." Then he says to Jesus "Remember me when you come into power." Jesus replies and says "I promise that today you will be with me in paradise.".
As shown in this story, the thief recognizes Jesus as the messiah, realizes that Jesus doesn't deserve punishment, admits his own guilt, and simply asks that Jesus remember him. He doesn't even ask for forgiveness, yet Jesus tells him "today you will be with me in paradise". This is the clearest demonstration that if the thief can get into heaven just by believing that Jesus is the Messiah, then we are clearly saved only by faith, not by our works. There are many other passages where Jesus states that we just need to believe in him and we will be saved. For some examples, see the next paragraph.
What Jesus Said
Jesus discussed this topic many times in his teachings. Here are some verses which show clearly it is by faith alone that we are saved:
- John 3:36: "Everyone who has faith in the Son has eternal life. But no one who rejects him will ever share in that life, and God will be angry with them forever."
- John 3:15: "Then everyone who has faith in the Son of Man will have eternal life."
- John 3:16: "God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die."
- John 3:18: "No one who has faith in God's Son will be condemned. But everyone who doesn't have faith in him has already been condemned for not having faith in God's only son."
- John 5:24: "I tell you for certain that everyone who hears my message and has faith in the one who sent me has eternal life and will never be condemned."
- John 6:28-29: "What exactly does God want us to do?" the people asked. Jesus answered, "God wants you to have faith in the one he sent.".
- John 6:40: "My Father wants everyone who sees the Son to have faith in him and to have eternal life. Then I will raise them to life on the last day."
- John 11:25-26: "I am the one who raises the dead to life! Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die. And everyone who lives because of faith in me will never really die."
- Mark 10:15: "I promise you that you cannot get into God's kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does." (i.e. with faith)
The fact that Jesus never mentions that good works are necessary to get into heaven should be very comforting. It is ONLY through faith that we are saved, and nothing else! That is such an amazing and comforting promise. The book of Romans discusses this further, but for a summary some of the verses are given here:
- "You cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him." (Romans 4:5)
- "There is only one God, and he accepts Gentiles as well as Jews, simply because of their faith." (Romans 3:10)
- "God treats everyone alike. He accepts people only because they have faith in Jesus Christ. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. But God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins."(Romans 3:22-24)
- "What can we say about our ancestor Abraham? If he became acceptable to God because of what he did, then he would have something to brag about. But he would never be able to brag about it to God. The scriptures say, 'God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in him'."(Romans 4:1-3)
God doesn't make our salvation based on works, because then people would brag and feel like they saved themselves. They would then not love God and would not praise him for rescuing us from hell by Jesus' death on the cross. However, since all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, no one can save themselves and we are all dependent on God's love and mercy shown through Jesus.
Support for "Works":
There are some verses which people use to claim that our works are what gets us saved. However, when each one is looked at in context, you can see that judgement by works is never meant for Christians, but only for unbelievers on the day of judgement.
- John 5:29: "Everyone who has done good things will rise to life, but everyone who has done evil things will rise and be condemned". However, note that this comes after John 5:24, which has already stated that everyone who believes Jesus' message and has faith will have eternal life. So it seems to indicate that the judgement based on works is only for those who did not believe in Jesus. This entire passage from John 5:25-29 seems to discuss the same event as in Revelation 20:11-15, which is the Great White Throne Judgement. Here, it repeats that the dead are raised and judged, and some get eternal life and some go to the lake of fire. The dead who are judged here are the ones who have not had faith in Jesus because all Christians and Old Testament saints have already been raised to life and rewarded - see 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (the Rapture), and Revelation 20:4 (raising the Tribulation Saints who were martyred.). So the only dead people left are those who have never had faith in Jesus, and are judged by their works. This is repeated again in John 12:48 where Jesus says "But everyone who rejects me and my teachings will be judged on the last day by what I have said."
- Matthew 25:31-46 (summarized): Jesus comes back with his angels to sit on his throne. He judges the nations based on how they treated Jesus' followers. Talking about those who didn't help his followers, Jesus says "Those people will be punished forever. But the ones who pleased God will be given eternal life." (Matthew 25:46). However, this judgement occurs to the people on the earth after Jesus has come back from heaven, won the battle of Armageddon, and thrown the Antichrist into the lake of fire. So the people that he judges here are those who survived the Tribulation. The people who are not Christians are judged based on how they helped the Christians while the Antichrist was persecuting them during the Tribulation. This judgement occurs at the start of the Millennium (where Jesus reigns on earth for 1000 years), and the Great White Throne Judgement is at the end of the Millennium.
- Matthew 12:33-37: "Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts. I promise you that on the day of judgement, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken. On that day they will be told that they are either innocent or guilty because of the things they have said.". Again, this relates to the people who are not Christians and have not accepted Jesus' payment for sins. This most likely relates to the Great White Throne Judgement, as previously stated.
- Matthew 5:20: "You must obey God's commands better than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law obey them. If you don't, I promise you that you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.". This line is most likely meant for the Jews who did not have faith in Jesus, and therefore were stuck trying to obey the Jewish old testament laws.
So these verses indicate that only the non-Christians are judged by their works. The ones who are alive when Jesus returns to earth to rule for 1000 years are judged then, and then all the rest of the dead people are judged at the end of the 1000 years at the Great White Throne Judgement. These verses don't apply to Christians or Old Testament saints because these people will already have been given rewards and new bodies that live forever at the Rapture.
But what about faith AND works?
There are some people who say that yes, works alone will not save you, but they say faith alone will not save you either, and that works are therefore necessary. They will probably quote verses like these ones below. However if we look closely, we can see that the works are always a result of having faith in God, not something we must do to get into heaven.
- John 8:51: "I tell you for certain that if you obey my words, you will never die.". This seems to say that obedience to Jesus is necessary to have eternal life.
- John 14:23-24: "If anyone loves me, they will obey me. Then my father will love them, and we will come to them and live in them. But anyone who doesn't love me, won't obey me." I don't believe this is the direct relationship of obedience=love that it implies. Instead, it shows love=obedience - as in a person who loves God (because they recognize what God has done for them by sending Jesus do die for their sins) will naturally want to obey God. But if someone doesn't love God, they will see no reason to try to obey him. Using John 8:51 above, we can correlate love=obedience=eternal life, but this is different from works+faith=eternal life.
- Luke 18:18-24 (summarized): A rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus responds saying that the man needs to follow the 10 commandments, and then to sell everything and give the money to the poor and come follow Jesus. Does this mean that rich people must give away everything to be a good Christian? What about the saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven? (Mark 10:25). I believe this is meant to show the dangers of having too much money. The rich man who came to Jesus walked away sad because he had a lot of stuff, and wasn't willing to part with it. This is equivalent to putting money/things before God. So it is not the having money which prevents rich people from going to heaven, it is their attachment to and love for money, which is more of a temptation for a rich person than a poor one.
- Matthew 25:14-30 (and Luke 19:11-27) (summarized): In the story of the 3 servants, a rich man gives 3 servants some money in different amounts. He goes away, and asks them to use the money to make more money. The first servant with the most makes the largest profit, and is rewarded by the rich man. The second servant makes some money, and is also rewarded. The third servant didn't do anything, and so the rich man throws him out into the dark where there is pain (Matthew) or kills him (Luke). Many Christians take this to mean that the Christian who doesn't do anything is sent to hell, no matter how much faith they had. However, many Bible studies I have been to come to the conclusion that the third servant didn't really like the rich man (he called the rich man a "hard man" or "hard to get along with" (Matthew 25:24), and also in the case of the rich man being God, God knows all our hearts and intentions, so when the rich man tells the third servant he is "lazy and good-for-nothing", we can trust that this is accurate. If a Christian is lazy and doesn't want to do God's will, it shows that they don't really love/trust God.
- Matthew 7:21-23: "Not everyone who calls me their Lord will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only the ones who obey my Father in heaven will get in. On the day of judgement many will call me their Lord. They will say, 'We preached in your name, and in your name we forced out demons and worked many miracles.'. But I will tell them, 'I will have nothing to do with you! Get out of my sight, you evil people!" This shows that even though people do good works, unless they truly believe in Jesus they will not be able to enter heaven. It could be these people Jesus reprimands are those who did works "in his name", but not out of their own love for Jesus - perhaps for attention, or to feel important, or to be rich, or whatever. Also, note that this is again at the day of judgement, where only those who have not believed in Jesus are judged. Any Christian will be saved because they have believed in Jesus. A side note is - why would God let these people do miracles and force out demons if they had no faith? In one of the sermons I heard once, the pastor said "God heals people not based on the faith of the healer, but on the faith of the person being healed." This is true many times in how Jesus healed people - if they had faith, they would be healed. God could use those who don't have faith to heal ones who do.
So in these verses where people seem to be condemned for not doing works, we can see that the real reason is they do not have faith. The ones who did not have faith did not do any good works, because faith in God will naturally lead to us wanting to do good things, as we discuss in the next section.
Works Show Faith
There are several verses that show that your faith will affect what you do, but the rest of these verses above clearly show that faith is what saves us, not works. I believe this is the best interpretation of what Jesus taught and what the rest of the New Testament points at. So let's look at a few verses which demonstrate this, and then some practical examples of how we can serve God.
- Matthew 7:17-19: "A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Every tree that produces bad fruit will be chopped down and burned.". This is repeated in Matthew 3:7-8 by John the Baptist. He tells the Pharisees and Sadducees "You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgement? Do something to show that you have really given up your sins.... An axe is ready to cut the trees down at their roots. Any tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into a fire." This indicates that if someone has really accepted Jesus, their life will show it by how they act and what they do. Also, it is interesting to compare this with the description of the "fruit of the spirit" (Galatians 5:22), which are internal characteristics such as loving, kind, peaceful, patient, gentle, self-controlled, etc., not works of how much time/money is donated to the church, how many homeless people were fed, etc.. Even though these works are good, as we have seen above, people who have done good works may still end up in hell, but people who have the Holy Spirit in them will naturally do good things because of the changes it causes in their hearts.
- Luke 10:25-37 - The story of the good Samaritan. This starts off with a man asking Jesus "What must I do to have eternal life?". The answer Jesus approves of is "Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind , and love your neighbor as yourself.". These seem straightforward. But then the story that comes afterwards shows a practical example of a man who cares for a stranger who was injured on the side of the road, and Jesus says we should do the same for the people we meet in our lives. In this story, a religious Pharisee does not stop to help the injured man, but a random stranger does. This could be to show that if you are religious but don't care for others, you are not properly "loving your neighbor".
- 1 John 5:20: "But if we say we love God and don't love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God if we don't love the people we can see?". This shows how our love for God should influence us to love others. Similarly, "If we have all we need and see one of our own people in need, we must have pity on that person, or else we cannot say we love God. Children, you show love for others by truly helping them and not merely talking about it." (1 John 3:17-18).
Probably the best discussion of how faith affects works is in James 2:14-17. Here James says "My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don't do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? If you know someone who doesn't have any clothes or food, you shouldn't just say 'I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.'. What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? Faith that doesn't lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!". James goes so far as to say that if you do not care for those you know are in need, that your faith is not genuine and therefore you are not saved. This is because if we do love God, and wish to obey him and are filled with the Holy Spirit, we will inherently want to do good works. It's part of how the Holy Spirit works in a person and changes them to be more like God.
I don't believe this means we must help every single person who needs help - that is an impossible task, even for large international aid organizations. Your faith can be shown in practical everyday ways - help a friend, family member, or coworker. I remember a story I heard once which is a good example: A boy is walking along a beach full of thousands of starfish that have been washed up on the shore, and are stuck and drying out. The boy walks along the shore, picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. A man sees the boy doing this, and asks him "Why are you doing this? What difference can you possibly make?". The boy responds and says "Well, it makes a difference to this one.". I believe this is the attitude we should have. We can make significant contributions to others' lives by small actions, and we just have to do the best we can. Just the fact that you do any good things at all shows you are a Christian, compared to some people out there who only think of themselves and have never had the impulse to help anyone in their life. By giving a few cans to a food bank, or helping someone you know who needs some money or food, or donating extra clothes to a charity you can start to make small differences. No one is called to save the world on their own. God knows what you are capable of, and what resources you have available, but we are still called to be generous with what we do have. We should be willing to help people anytime, whether it is through our money, time, or effort, or even just encouraging or being kind to someone. God has promised to reward those who are generous, and to continuously provide and bless those who give so that they will be able to keep giving (2 Corinthians 9:8-11).
So after all this analysis, what is the main point? The main reason I wrote this article is to encourage Christians that we are saved ONLY by faith in Jesus, not by our works or anything else. You don't have to worry about "being good enough" to get into heaven. Even the thief on the cross was saved by believing in Jesus as he was dying. Jesus tells us over and over that it is only through him that we can have eternal life. Anyone who brags about their good works and thinks they deserve to go to heaven is completely wrong. However, once we do believe in Jesus and have received his love, we are told to show this love to others by being generous and doing good deeds. This shows that our faith is genuine. But don't worry, we don't have to do it alone. The Holy Spirit will work in your heart to help you be generous and do good things, and God has promised to give us everything we need. So be confident that if you believe in Jesus you will live forever in heaven! But while you're here, do your best to show God's love by loving your neighbor as yourself.